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Back-to-school e-tailers gear up online

As throngs of Net-savvy college kids start back to school, retailers are struggling to stay at the head of the class.

As throngs of Net-savvy college kids start back to school, retailers are struggling to stay at the head of the class.

Clothing retailer the Gap enhanced its Web strategy through yesterday's three-year deal with Internet service provider America Online. Through the partnership, AOL will showcase Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy clothing brands on its Shop@AOL site, though the Gap is the only one of the three now selling online.

Though this Web strategy is much in line with the traditional back-to-school buzz, online promotions from e-commerce start-ups and offline retailers are just beginning to ramp up.

Hardware/ Software Apple
Electronics/ Wireless Sony
Palm Computing
Games Playstation
MP3 players Creative
Books Ecampus
Backpacks Fogdog
Furnishings/ Office Postermart
Office Depot
Clothing GAP
J Crew
Steve Madden
Community MyBytes
Student Advantage
Banking Capital One
American Express
The opportunity to sell online could be golden, particularly among college students who need to furnish their dorms, and buy books, computers, and school supplies. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds comprise about 13 percent of all Internet users, and about 90 percent of those users are online regularly, according to research firm Jupiter Communications.

Marketers spend millions to reach these students, with the knowledge that about 66 percent of college students have credit cards, or money from parents and part-time jobs.

But some retailers with full-fledged e-commerce sites--such as K-Mart, Staples, and Office Depot--are doing little to tap into the teen Web wallet. Back-to-school promotions are limited on their sites, yet these companies offer everything from printer paper to PCs through online stores. Staples is now featuring one back-to-school sale item on its home page, while Office Depot currently is lacking school specials on its home page.

"A lot of [offline] companies want to target this community, but they haven't been able to pull a plan together in time," said Jupiter Communications e-commerce analyst Michael May. May said some retailers are promoting back-to-school sales with stellar ad campaigns, such as K-Mart's, yet are promoting little more than infant car seats on their Web sites.

Retailers moving forward
Among the early movers in the back-to-school race is the Gap, which features a Gap on Campus theme on its home page. The site showcases a picture of a hip student sporting the its latest vest and corduroys--an image that clicks with the clothing maker's latest "Everybody in Vests" and "Everybody in Cords" television and outdoor advertising campaign.

Student-friendly computer maker Apple is also in the back-to-school ballpark, with a slick new ad campaign that heavily promotes its new iBook, which launches in September, along with the iMac, which are both promoted on its Web site.

Additionally, both AOL and Yahoo are offering back-to-school sections on their sites, where students can buy everything from backpacks to Bugle Boy jeans.

On the textbook end, the Web can offer better deals and no line at the campus bookstore. Besides tuition and housing, books are typically the biggest cost for students--and a $3 billion market for booksellers, according to Jupiter.

Web upstarts including Varsity Books and are targeting the student market. Bigwords allows students to search for books by identification code, by academic class, or by school, with an option to rent books for the school year. The company said it carries 3 million titles, offers up to 40 percent discounts, and supplies free shipping.

Meanwhile, Varsity Books is heavily recruiting college students to market its new Web site on campus. Jupiter's May said more companies need to make equally innovative pushes to lure students to their sites as school gears up.

"You think of the major companies that should have a back-to-school initiative, and you go to the site and there's no mention of back to school on their home page. I am surprised at how little back-to-school targeting there is online," said Jupiter's May.